How not to ‘wean the populace’ from terrorism

The PRC has a problem with extremism.  Part of their challenge lies in Tibet where Buddhist monks self-immolate in the streets.  I will set aside why monks are choosing to burn themselves to death (which I think we all can agree is an extreme act) in this blog, mostly because they are not engaging in terrorist actions and because I lack expertise in that area of the world.  Another part is found in the far northwest where the native Uighurs are becoming restive.  The latter issue is significantly more of a concern as Uighur extremists have been behind some lethal terrorist attacks over the past few years.  To wit:

  • an East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) attack on PRC policemen that led to 16 deaths on August 4, 2008
  • a stabbing attack in July 2010 that killed 18 people
  • an October 2013 attack in Tianamen Square that left five dead
  • a September 2015 attack at a coal mine that killed more than 50.  And so on (NB I cover this in much greater detail in The Lesser Jihads).

In response to these incidents, the PRC government, among other things,  is engaged in talks with Pakistan, where it feels that ‘Islamist militancy’ is spilling over the border into Xinjiang province, where most Uighurs live (whether or not Pakistan is truly and solely at the root of China’s extremist problem is debatable).  China believes that by boosting Pakistan’s economy – through the One Belt One Road initiative and more specifically the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – it can lift the economy of the region and hence ‘wean the populace from fundamentalism’ (Pakistan? Xinjiang? Both?).  Sounds like a capital idea, no?

Oh if it were only so easy!  The first complication is that, as I have tried to demonstrate for the better part of two decades, economic under-performance (unemployment, under-employment, poverty) is a  poor indicator of violent extremism (which is what I think China means by ‘fundamentalism’).  What this implies is that penury is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for terrorism. The fact that it is not necessary is easily seen when one determines that many terrorists are not poor and many poor are not terrorists.  Nor is it sufficient since if it all it took to become a terrorist were poverty the world would have billions of violent extremists and I have seen neither data nor research that supports this theory.  Poverty undoubtedly can play a role in some cases but not nearly all cases.

I have no idea what percentage of Uighurs live under what qualifies as the poverty line in Xinjiang Province but I do know that economic challenges aside, the PRC government in Beijing is doing at least two things that make the very real threat of Islamist extremism worse.  First, in response to a handful of attacks authorities have made it very hard to be a Muslim in China, especially in Xinjiang.  There are restrictions on clothing, on men’s beards, on fasting during the holy month of Ramadan (a requirement in Islam and one of the faith’s five pillars) and even on attending mosque at all.  How can the muzzling of legitimate Islamic practices be seen as a protective and preventative move against extremism?

Secondly, just as in Tibet, the PRC is behind the ‘Hanification’ of Xinjiang.  The Han are the dominant ethnic group in the country and there are government programmes to encourage them to move to the northwest, taking their culture and their language (Mandarin) with them.  I would not go so far as to label this ‘ethnic cleansing’ but it is a clear attempt to push the Uighurs (and their language and their culture) to the margins.  Is there any surprise that this leads to Uighur resentment?  This is accompanied by the ‘over-securitisation’ of the area through the posting of thousands of police and troops.

These policies have two obvious consequences.  In the first instance it is hard to see how they serve to dampen or reduce violent extremism as they have little to do with the ‘root causes’ (although I hate that term) of terrorism.  In the second it does not take a scholar to conclude that these practices are very likely having the opposite effect of their supposed intent: i.e. they may very well be contributing to an increase in religious extremism.

I have studied terrorism for a very long time and seen a lot of  strategies come and go.  I have also seen a woeful ignorance and lack of understanding among governments (including my own) of some of the factors feeding terrorism.  At the end of the day one would hope that any government would abide by the time-honoured medical maxim primum non nocere – do no harm.  It is pretty obvious, at least to me, that China isn’t following this principle.   Rather than tackling the small numbers who really are terrorists they are painting all Uighurs with the extremist brush.  And that is not helpful.  As a result, expect more terrorism in the PRC and more attacks by the Uighurs.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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